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The FA: a century and a half not so sweet

Throughout 2013 the Football Association will be celebrating its 150th anniversary. Philosophy Football’s MARK PERRYMAN reflects on the organisation’s failings.

26th October 1863. The great and the good of nineteenth century English Football gathered at the Freemasons’ Arms in Covent Garden to codify their sport. The rest is history, as will be frequently pointed out over the next twelve months, as the organisation they founded, The Football Association, loudly celebrates its 150th anniversary year. Particularly in the high-profile Wembley friendlies against Brazil, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland. Not that there’s anything resembling friendliness in any footballing encounter with the latter.

Following England’s most recent hapless exit from a World Cup in 201 it was pointed out by Matt Scott here that in Germany at the time there were 34,790 Uefa B, A and Pro qualified coaches, in Spain 23,995 and Italy 29,420. England? In comparison a paltry 2769. The figures tell us all that we should need to know about the FA’s inability to act as a governing body, indeed arguably the FA as it celebrates its longevity will also be revealing itself as the sole FA in the world incapable of governing its own sport.

The FA effectively abdicated that role, its reason for existence, when it sub-let the top division to first the FA Premiership , and subsequently lost even the fig-leaf of that prefix, sold off to the highest bidder, under the control of the big clubs’ moneymen. The one major competition it still runs, the FA Cup, has become an also-ran as the top Premiership clubs ruthlessly prioritise Champions League qualification over the silverware of the Cup while in the Championship reaching the moneyed uplands of the Premiership easily outweighs the appeal of the Cup. With few exceptions FA Cup attendances have progressively fallen. A training ground for second elevens and youth players doesn’t have the appeal that this self-proclaimed ‘greatest cup competition in the world’ could once boast.

The FA’s decline and fall is what has characterised at least the last twenty years of its existence, the game compared to 1963, its centenary year, is almost unrecognisable. Not entirely for the worse of course, but not as much for the better as the FA would like to claim either. At Philosophy Football we have a neat way of putting this, on a T-shirt of course, Against Mod£rn Football.

By accident, in the early noughties the FA did discover some kind of role. With the old Wembley closed for rebuilding from 2000 to 2007 England Internationals were taken ‘on the road’. Not just to the big grounds, Old Trafford, St James’ Park and Anfield but also the likes of Southampton’s St Marys, Ipswich’s Portman Road and Derby County’s Pride Park.

For seven years the FA became the cheerleaders for the greatest, and hugely popular, experiment in devolution in English sporting history. For the first time an England international became a local match for large parts of the country outside London and the south-east.

And then at a cost of over £750 million the ‘new’ Wembley was completed and opened to great fanfare. All England internationals for the first 30 years are contracted to be played here. Plus FA Cup semi-finals, in a single money-making blow destroying any remaining ‘magic’ of the FA Cup Final. An unholy competition between the capital’s four 60,000 plus capacity stadiums has also ensued to host the concerts, the NFL and other huge stadium shows which keep these arenas financially viable. Meanwhile virtually no England internationals are played on a family and travel friendly Saturday afternoon, weekday evenings only.

Of course the FA does some good work, but instead of being a cause for great self-congratulatory backslapping, the 150th Anniversary should initiate a serious and creative consideration of how it might affect the game it is supposed to govern. In Scotland a recently published book, Saving Scottish Football, has set out some far-reaching and well-resesearched ideas for the future of the game North of the Border.

All fans of the game in England should forget the old rivalries and easy pot-shots and give this excellent book a good read. The book is full of practical suggestions, here are my three New Year ideas to help set a similar process in motion for English football.

First, now the FA is lumbered with the New Wembley, use it as a platform to promote a sport that is both participative and inclusive. When I was a teenager the annual England vs Scotland schoolboys international was a major event. Schools up and own the country would fill coaches for what was a great day out. What better way to fill Wembley, at next-to-nothing ticket prices, with the fans of tomorrow. With the greatest respect to Scotland, how about an ambitious programme of opponents with the likes of Brazil and Argentina’s schoolkids, the Germans and Dutch, and others? Make a day of it with a double-header, combining schoolboy and schoolgirls’ internationals.

Secondly, Football’s Governing Body should be the first to treat the Womens’ game on an equal basis with the Mens’. The huge success of the Olympic Women’s Football tournament is testament to the potential. Nothing sums up the FA’s chauvinism better tha the fact the England Women’s team are yet to be ‘allowed’ to play a game at Wembley. But it isn’t just on an equal opportunities basis that the FA should be prioritising the women’s game. It makes good political sense too. This is one half of the game they still have some material influence over, compared to their marginalisation from the mens’ game. And their number one objective should be to bid to host the 2019 Women’s World Cup. The continuing lack of any such bid remains an absolute scandal.

Thirdly, a huge investment in coaching. The newly opened St George’s Park centre is a start but it isn’t so much the resources that are the problem it is a wholesale culture of neglect. How on earth did we end up in a situation where Germany has ten times the number of qualified coaches compared to England? Every German town of a reasonable size has a centre of excellence, with facilities match, those coaches working with children from the earliest age. The FA would have to change its focus almost entirely and plan long-term, not something it has proved particularly good at to date.

England likes to boast the ‘best league in the world’. No doubt this will be the centrepiece of 2013’s celebrations, after all celebrating the achievements of a grossly underpeforming England team would only spoil the party atmosphere. But what has the FA’s abdication from governing its top division amounted to? Compare Premiership ticket prices to the German Bundesliga where you can watch a top flight game for less than a tenner.

Football in Germany doesn’t get everything right but broadly speaking the German FA governs the game to protect the traditions of access, locality and competition that we might have expected the FA to defend, David Conn has expertly set out the German alternative here. We now have a deeply uncompetitive race for the Premiership title with only three or four of the same serious contenders in the mix season, after season. It used to be easy to poke fun at Scottish football, absolutely dominated by two clubs from the same city.

Now English football is perilouly close to the self-same situation. The top English Clubs owned for the most part by foreign oligarchs and multibillionaires. ‘Home’ ownership isn’t necessarily much better. The local butcher, baker and candle-stick maker could be just as crooked but at least they tended to have some kinds of roots in the localities the clubs are named after; more than anything else it was this localism that shaped the character of the English game. Abandoned almost wholesale under the FA’s watch, with none of the regulatory powers a governing body worth its name would fiercely insist upon.

This has also resulted in a game in which the national team is anything but the pinnacle of the sport’s achievements, unlike any other footballing power which regardless of their clubs’ successes ensures and insists that their FA gives the priority to the national team it deserves.

This is a sorry list, and unlikely to get much better in 2013. Sorry to spoil the party but after 150 years isn’t it time Football had a governing body that, governs.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction, Philosophy Football


  1. Chris says:

    The last 20 years have been a complete disaster for European and English football (although not for the money men, obviously). 20 years ago Leeds United could get promoted and, without a billionaire backer, win the league in a couple of seasons. Now that’s unthinkable. 20 years ago there were three prestigious continental competitions. Now there’s one which has simply destroyed the other two with its insatiable expansion and ludicrous financial rewards. Giving Champions League places to non-champions has entrenched the dominance of the game by a moneyed elite of clubs. Their spoilt fans demand constant success, while ignoring how lucky they are compared to the majority of supporters.

    I think that to save football we need to:

    Abolish the Premier League

    Bring back the old European Cup, UEFA Cup and Cup-Winners Cup

    Introduce a Europe-wide salary cap – if the best players go overseas to get more money, frankly I don’t care

    Cancel the TV deals and put football back on terrestrial television for a greatly reduced price

  2. treborc says:

    The premier league is going nowhere and I think the FA are worried if they tried to end it, then sadly players would vote to stay with the money and the issue about playing for England would be dumped.

  3. Chris. Good point about the ‘Rich Runners-Up League’. For my money the greatest cup competition in the world was always the original European Cup.

    As for your proposals. It would be intersting to do an authoritative poll , both the FA and their compliant media partners might be surprised at the degree of shared disenchantment.

    Premier League going nowhere? If Utd, City or Chelsea win it this year (all 3 would be odds-on favourites) could many honestly summon up the enthusiasm to celebrate what this would mean for the state of Englih football in its 150th year.

    Mark P

  4. treborc says:

    Super league anyone.

  5. I’m old school. Why a second division has to be called a Championship, a third divisoon league one and a foyth division league two is entirely beyond me. Oh and the Premiership? thats something run by Barclays isn’t it?

    Still, could be worse, the league my team plays in is named after a High Street Stationery Chain. Nice way to celebrate 150 years of English Football’s magnificence!

    Mark P

  6. treborc says:

    If you remember back, the Premier league was to be a totally separate league structure out side of the FA control, it took UEFA and FIFA who then stated no player would be able to play for England unless registered with the English FA.

    The SKY money is now so big and the greed of the top five so massive it will not take long before these clubs and some of the top in Europe set up it’s own leagues .

    Only five years ago the Premier league wanted the Championship to basically become the feeder league, dropping the other clubs from the payment system.

  7. The Premier League is now almost entirely out of control, and the ‘big 5’ is rapidly shrinking to the ‘big 3’. The FA’s ony hope is to concentrate on the parts of the game it can materially affect and wait for the Premier League to blow up in its own face.

  8. Martin Ohr says:

    I’ve written a reply on my blog

  9. Martin. Despite the occasional harsh words about me personally there is much in your excellent and informative respose that I entirely agree with. You pnt out some, I would say fairly minor tho’ you may disagree – inaccuracies in my article, and some are in any case debatable but on the main thrust it seems to me theres more we agee on than differ. I certainly entirely agree with you on the poor state of public football facilities.

    The one point I didn’t entirely understand that you make was on coaching. Are you saying that the 10:1 ration of UEFA A and B qualified coaches in Germany, Spain and Holland’s favour compared to England doesn’t matter? That O find difficult to believe.

    Anyway, thanks for the response, its good to have a decent debate.

  10. treborc says:

    You agree with him well I do not, for one thing insulting people because your a referee my god any person can become a referee the course is so basic as is the community coaching badge, you learn to referee by doing games and not a lot else.

    Community coaching again is to give many people who have never kicked a ball even on the beach an idea of how to coach in my ten years working with this, I have never failed a person, even some who were nightmares, one lady came in high heals to learn about coaching football she was the wive of a local teacher who wanted a coaching badge for school team otherwise the team would be ended she had no idea what so ever .

    This is what we have on the first aid aspect of the community coaching bade.

    Child gets kicked in the head he’s laying on the field of play and not responding to questions he has brownish fluid coming out of his nose and ears what would you do.

    Six people said put him on a stretcher and move him to the touch line and call an ambulance so the game could go on.

    How would you deal with a child or player with a broken leg, oh said one it’s only a broken leg drag him off the field and call an ambulance all felt the game had to go on.

    The course of action should be not to move the child do not move them protect from cold or wet , but these six said the game was more important and these six were given the community coaching course.

    The local grass roots coaching course is even more basic and it to give the people a basic idea and nothing else.

    I played the game at semi professional and then took up refereeing at thirty making it to the class A ending up doing lines on the conference.
    What any of this has to do with the FA and premier league I’ve no idea

  11. Thanks Trebor. Like you I could have done without Martin’s personal insults but I did feel his ponts ere genuinely made.

    Anyway, the core point remains how to renew the game from the bottom up. One of the wisest perspecives on this I’ve ever heard was from Trevor Brooking.

    He suggested that nothing would ever change until we entirely change or coaching priorities. Our very best, most qualified, highly experienced to coxh the kids, particularly the 7-11 year olds. Only then would the quality of the game in England change. Martin is right, this would have to be accompanied by facilities too. And this is what the FA has got so badly wrong. The richest of all our sports is incredibly facility and coaching poor outside of the upper leves of the professional game.

    Mark P

  12. Martin Ohr says:

    Mark, but on coaching, it is easy to say invest more, but it depends what it means. As treborc says level 1 coaching is pretty basic, most coaches get this badge so that their child’s team can continue to function, and never make it to the higher badges simply because by the time they would have got there their child has aged out of the game. Almost every coach in england does it on a voluntary basis ( in fact ditto for referees right up to the select group).

    If you mean that the FA should recruit, train and employ coaches even on a part time basis then you should say so, if you mean something else then you should say that.

    How does it go for other countries? I’m yet to dig out a reasonable case study for germany, but anecdotally(from the non-sporting german branch of my family) coaches are organised the same as in britain, but socially and culturally there is more drive gain accreditations and be willing to coach voluntarily for other peoples children over an extended period + better levels of formal qualification for pe teachers. Can you point me in the direction of anything more detailed?

  13. Not sure if Chris Green covers this in his otherwise excellent book?

    I raised this with a Spanish football journakist based in England covering the game over here. She claimed that in England to get the yop UEFA Coaching badges it costs ten times as much in Spain where the courses are heavily subsidised. That may well explain why we have have 10% of the top qualified coaches Spain has?!

    I’m not a coach but I’m making what I thught was a useful point. How have we arrived at the situation where we have a round 10% the number of coaches other countries can boast. Of course this is also linked in infrstructural investment too, again talking to a German football journalist based over here he pointed out how those thousands more coaches than we have are working at a local level not just with the clubs and have the facilities to fulfil that role.

    Mark P

  14. Matty says:

    Great article by Mark and a rather unfair response by Martin on his blog (although a lot of it is good and his responses here are good). Mark raises a good point about the cost of going on coaching courses. This point is raised all the time by callers when the radio phone-ins debate the subject.

  15. Thanks Matty. I just hope the 150th Anniversary can prove an opportunity to discuss these kinds of issues. Practical ideas for the future of football was what I was seeking to outline, realitively easy to implement if the will was there (and theefore harder to argue against). Martin raises some well-informed objections to some of the detail but I don’t see why the main thrust being disagreed with. Are we happy wth an FA that is a governing body that doesn’t, er, govern?

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